In just six days as many as 17,000 Canberra schoolchildren will walk through the morning chill to the bus stop and catch a free ride to school, courtesy of the ACT taxpayer and a Liberal Government very keen on winning another term.
Public servants and staff at ACTION buses have been working overtime to get the $27 million plan ready in time for the September 3 start date.
Urban Services Minister Brendan Smyth made it clear when he announced the plan, three months ago, that delays would not be tolerated. The free bus scheme would be in full swing six weeks before the ACT election, he insisted. Since then it has been one of the most controversial pieces of pre-election policy, and has provided the sharpest point of distinction between Labor and Liberal as they vie for the votes of Canberrans.
Labor, after a failed attempt at scuttling the plan on the floor of the Assembly, announced it would scrap it outright if it won office, and put the savings into education.
The Government says it promised to deliver free school bus travel in the 1995 election campaign, and will stick to its promise.
It had been very sorry that, once it won office, sufficient funds were not available to begin the plan immediately. Now it had the money it was time to honour commitments.
The plan was also about giving something back to the community, Mr Smyth said.
Public school parents and teachers’ unions for both private and public schools have fiercely opposed the scheme, saying it wastes money that could be much better spent inside schools, on basic facilities, learning assistance for those in need, and welfare services. In a highly unusual move, usually publicity-shy primary and secondary school principals joined the opposition.
As critics predicted, the benefits have fallen heavily in favour of the private sector. Working from the most recently available figures, taken last week, public school students are applying for, and receiving, the free passes at about half the rate of private school students.
Less than 25 per cent, or around 7400 of the 38,000 government school students either already have or are about to receive passes, compared with just under 50 per cent, or 9500 of the 23,000 ACT non-government school students. Not everyone is eligible for free passes, distance and age restrictions cutting some out of the benefit. Older students must live at least 2km from school, younger ones at least 1.6km away.
According to a spokeswoman for ACTION buses, which are processing the applications, around 18,000 applications had been processed as of last Friday with just 5 per cent rejected as ineligible.
The total expected to apply was about 22,000, with 50 to 100 applications coming in every day. Late applications could not be guaranteed a pass by the start date.
One group which has not been heard in the debate is the students.
Students at St Clare’s and St Edmund’s Colleges who spoke to The Canberra Times were unanimously in favour of the scheme, a number from large families with yearly savings of up to $1000 in store.
At Narrabundah College it was a different matter.
Year 11 student Claire Templeton said her parents were teachers, and it would be much fairer if the funds went to better teaching salaries, or to school resources that everyone could share.
Classmate Michelle Paterson thought it unfair that some students got passes while others missed out, even if they did live closer to school
By CATRIONA JACKSON
The Canberra Times 28 August 2001